The United States faces the possibility of greater involvement in two wars: one with Russia and one with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, aka the Islamic State). One is a throwback to nationalist wars of the past. The other is a worrying harbinger of the future. But for Ukraine the future is now.
The Russian invasion and undermining of Ukraine continues as do the absurd denials by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The latest front around the port city of Mariupol in southeast Ukraine appears aimed at opening a land corridor to the previously seized Crimea. It could also presage a push to extend the land corridor to Transnistria, the ethnic Russian part of Moldova. This would cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea and leave it a land-locked rump state. The rebels and their Russian supporters deem this the "Novouisiya" or New Russia and Putin continues to deny Russian involvement while saying a new state must be part of any negotiated settlement.
The response from the European Union (EU) is predictable: another gradual tightening of economic sanctions crafted not to hurt themselves too much. Such incremental steps give Russia time to adjust.
Putin knows that the sanctions are causing more pain to Russia than they and the Russian counter boycott of European food products are causing the West. He is betting, however, that his autocratic Russia has a much greater tolerance for such pain than the democracies of the West. After all the West cannot even bring itself to call the invasion an invasion, let alone an act of war.
While Putin reaps the rewards of political popularity and an unmistakable message to Russia's "near abroad", European and American special interests and economic malaise dampen the Western response. To date, he is winning the bet. Russia is willing to tolerate current and increased levels of pain. Europe and the U.S. not so much.
With Russia on the march in Ukraine and the Islamic State sweeping across the Mesopotamian desert obliterating the Syria - Iraq border, NATO will meet this week in Wales. The first priority should be Ukraine. ISIL can wait. It will be slowed by current U.S. bombing policy and diplomacy to coordinate or at least de-conflict regional interests. cannot be effective until there is a credibly inclusive government in Baghdad.
The first thing on NATO's agenda is to call the invasion an invasion and aggressively refute Putin's lies. Polls show Russians oppose an invasion but believe his lies. Every effort should be made including information warfare and social media to alter this misperception. Actions to support this strategy could include a staged walk out if he addresses the U.N. General Assembly this fall and moving the 2018 world cup to the Netherlands. Russian university students in the U.S. should have their visas revoked and be sent home.
Next, Putin's calculus must be changed. Both the energy and financial sanctions, should be severely tightened. And the sanctions should be imposed in a quantum leap, not gradually. Identified accounts of Putin and his close collaborators in western financial institutions should be frozen.
Ukraine must be helped and Russia weakened militarily. NATO infrastructure funds should be used to purchase the two assault ships being built in France for Russia. All sales of military equipment and technology should be suspended. NATO should accelerate moves to preposition equipment and headquarters in Poland and the Baltic and increase exercises of a rapid deployment force in the region. Ukraine should be provided military training, logistic support and equipment, especially anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems.
Some will contend that such moves will provoke Putin. But Putin continues to provoke the West and not responding has only encouraged him. Might this back him into a corner? Yes so NATO needs to offer an exit ramp. The West will offer to lift the sanctions and commit to a lengthy moratorium on Ukraine joining NATO. Ukraine will agree to protections for Russian ethnic citizens and language. In return, Putin will withdraw all his forces and "volunteers" from Ukraine, cease all support to the rebels and agree to international monitoring of a new referendum in Crimea.
If Putin accepts such an offer, we will know his real concerns are NATO on his border and a hostile Ukraine, both legitimate, If he declines and continues his invasion and dismemberment of Ukraine, we will know he seeks a New Russia. In that case we will be in a New Cold War and, sooner or later, a hot one.